Portrait of a very brave man...
His name is Brad Oscar and he was Tony-nominated for his role as Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind in "the new Mel Brooks musical," The
Producers, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
What does Brad do that requires so much courage? Here's what: From time to time, he goes on in the role of Max Bialystock,
replacing Mr. Lane. This occurs every so often — as it did in late June, when the star was benched due to what a press release called a
I have never harbored the slightest fantasy of appearing on the Broadway stage. Some daydreams are just too, too removed from
But if I ever did so dream, I'd guess the last thing I'd fantasize is appearing before an audience that paid a collective zillion bucks
to see Nathan Lane's Tony-winning performance and got stuck with me. Even if you're great — and I haven't seen Brad play that part but
I'll bet he is great — a lot of those out front have got to be resenting your every breath.
Brad was originally cast in The Producers as an understudy/swing. To get technical here for a moment: An "understudy" is
an actor in the show who learns another role and can play it when the regular performer is out. A "stand-by" is an actor who is not usually in
the show and who is paid to learn a role and to be available to come in and do it, should the need arise. A "swing" is in the show, usually
playing an array of small roles, occasionally covering an extra one.
Brad was on call to step into three roles: The Nazi, the gay director and Bialystock. One day outta town, the actor playing
Liebkind injured his knee and Brad went on for him. He was a smash hit.
This was an enormous bit of whimsy since a key plot point of The Producers is that Herr Liebkind is going to play Hitler but he
breaks his leg and the person who goes on in his stead is a smash hit. (Something about injuries to the lower extremities seems to hover around
Nathan Lane. He sprained a foot during an early performance...and his previous Broadway appearance was in The Man Who Came To Dinner,
playing a man with a broken leg.)
And so Brad became the first-string Kraut and, when I saw the show, he killed in the role. But he also continues to "cover" the
other two and when Lane's out, Brad is Bialystock and someone else plays Franz.
It's a rough gig. Even if the replacement performer is terrific, attendees have to feel baited-and-switched: We paid for
Nathan Lane and didn't get him.
Steve Martin once explained why he once felt compelled to show up for a performance despite a killer flu: "If people pay to see Bozo
the Clown and he's not there, they're furious. It doesn't matter that they get Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Barbra Streisand to fill
in. People would still say, 'Damn it! We paid to see Bozo!'"
Tickets for The Producers run up to $100 but that's just at the box office, where they rarely have any. A lot of attendees
got their ducats via ticket brokers and agents who are charging a lot more. A quick Internet search finds that, among agents who will quote a
price on their sites, the range is from $200-$300 a seat, more on Saturday evenings.
One presumes that those who don't advertise numbers are asking — and probably getting — even more than that. Over on
eBay (the new arbiter of all value in our society), tix seem to be going for $200-$750 per, the high end being for better seats and/or those
purchased shortly before the performance date.
In theory, if you arrive to find the star is out, you can get a refund or exchange. Neither is usually much of an option,
especially for those in from out o' town.
In the case of The Producers, if you paid a scalper $1200 for two seats, the box office will only refund the face value
of the tickets, so you'll be out around a thousand bucks. The show is more-or-less sold out for the next year so it's not likely that you'll be
able to exchange your tickets for equally-good ones next week. That's even assuming you'll be in New York next week.
As I said, I'll bet Brad is terrific in the role of Bialystock. I'll even bet that, at the end, the audience rewards him with a
loud, loving standing ovation. They know it's not his fault he's not Nathan Lane.
Though they may not be viable alternatives, refunds and exchanges are at least easier to request than they once were. You have to
put in for them before the curtain goes up and, years ago, unscrupulous producers (there are such creatures) would try to conceal the fact that their
star was in absentia until it was too late. As with most tales of Broadway moguls, the most egregious stories are about the late, oft-loathed
Back when Hello, Dolly! was the hottest show in town, a cavalcade of great stars paraded, one after the other, through the title
role of Dolly Levi — Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Ginger Rogers, etc. Some occasionally missed performances and some didn't
appear at all for matinees. When someone else had to play Dolly, it was usually covered by a wonderful actress named Bibi Osterwald.
Merrick, loath to give refunds, was reluctant to publicize this.
So what they'd do is, just seconds before the curtain, someone would announce, "At tonight's performance, the role of Mrs. Levi will be
played by Bibi Osterwald." Then the show would start, the box office would close and, by the time anyone in the house realized that "Mrs. Levi"
was Dolly, it would be too late. Some folks, it is said, never did realize it. They left the theatre, thinking they'd seen Ginger Rogers
when they'd actually seen Bibi.
Abuses of this sort led to new Actors Equity rules, the main one being that proper notice of cast substitutions must be given.
There are three ways to do this — a sign in the lobby, an insert in the program book, and an announcement before the show begins. Two of
the three must be employed.
When I saw The Producers a few weeks ago, you could see arriving audience members anxiously looking for signs out front or slips
in the program.
There was a slip in every copy and, when folks saw it, they froze in fear: Was Nathan out? Was Matthew? Hurriedly,
nervously, the inserts were examined...and you could see people untense to read that the role of the prison guard, usually played by one guy, was
being played by another.
I have, of course, a story about this kind of thing. It occurred a few years ago when the musical Sunset Boulevard was
gracing the Shubert here in Los Angeles. Glenn Close was starring and theatergoers were knifing one another for tickets...because of her but
also because of an outstanding performance by George Hearn as her servant, Max.
During this time, I had the good fortune to work with Mr. Hearn, who was, is and always will be one of the great stars of the
stage. One day, he invited me to scrounge up a date and to come see that evening's performance of Sunset Boulevard. I've had worse
So I called a lady I knew and the conversation went like this...
"I was wondering if you were busy tonight..."
"Gee, Mark, I'm sorry but I promised my desperately-ill 70-year old mother that I would drive her to the hospital for the surgery she
desperately needs to save her life, and that I would be there for her when she came out of the anesthetic."
"Oh, well, I certainly understand. I'll find someone else who wants to see Sunset Boulevard..."
"Sunset Boulevard? With Glenn Close in it?"
"Yes, the gentleman who plays the second lead has arranged for house seats — I think they're third row, center. Then,
afterwards, he wants to give us a backstage tour and introduce us to Ms. Close. But since you're busy..."
"What time will you pick me up? No, wait. I'll pick you up."
"But I thought your mother...the operation..."
"Hey, she'll be out cold. She won't know I'm not there. And the old lady can hitchhike to the hospital. It's only
We went to the Shubert that night and had a wonderful evening. I didn't think the show was a classic — Andrew Lloyd Webber
and all that — but Glenn Close and George Hearn were terrific.
The glow lasted all the way until the next day when another lady friend who was visiting me found the Playbill on my dining room
table. In a voice oozing outrage, she gasped, "You went to see Glenn Close without me?"
"I'm sorry but I had to scare up a date quickly and — "
"You are getting more tickets and taking me to see this."
"Well, I don't know if I can. You see, these tickets were special and..."
"You are getting more tickets and taking me to see this. Do you understand? I must see Glenn Close."
I do not know if I can adequately convey the implied threat with which the above was spoken. Imagine a crazed mugger hopped up on
every pharmaceutical known to man, his finger twitching on the trigger of a .357 Magnum Centerfire Handgun loaded with Subsonic Jacketed Hollow Point
She was a little more demanding than that.
So, reluctantly imposing again on Mr. Hearn's kindness, I arranged for two more tickets. This time, I insisted on paying.
When the evening arrived, my friend and I got dressed up — which is to say that she looked great and I looked like a sloppy guy
wearing better clothing. We went to a swanky restaurant for pre-show dinner and arrived at the theater to find a mob scene outside the box
office, and not a cheery one...
Glenn Close was out that night.
And boy, were some people angry about it.
Trying with scant success to calm people down was a Shubert employee with a shaved head. Everyone was calling him Max since, in
the play, Ms. Desmond's butler Max has a shaved head.
The Max outside the Shubert was assuring all that the stand-by was wonderful — a claim no one doubted. It's just that she
wasn't Glenn Close.
Mostly, he was trying to solve a tremendous snarl at the ticket windows. He yelled, over and over, "Those of you who want
exchanges or refunds, please wait until people who are picking up tickets have had a chance to get them so they can get seated for the
I turned to my date and asked her if she wanted to see Sunset Boulevard without Glenn Close.
She said, "I didn't come to see Sunset Boulevard. I came to see Glenn Close." Okay...question answered.
We stood to one side with others who were waiting for exchanges. And as we were standing there, a gentleman — about
thirty-five years old, I'd guess — lost it.
I mean, really lost it. He began screaming and sputtering with rage. "I came all the way from Minnesota to see Glenn
Close. I booked a room at the Century Plaza [a hotel across the way]. I planned my whole vacation around this!"
Max kept trying to placate the man, who seemed to be under the impression that if he screamed loud enough, Glenn Close would suddenly
not have laryngitis and would miraculously appear to perform. "What are you going to do for me?" he demanded of Max.
"Well, we'll validate your parking," Max said.
This made the man angrier. "I don't have a car! I'm staying at the Century Plaza and I walked here!"
Max thought for a second, then he reached into his breast pocket, pulled out a cigar and offered it to the man. And, of course,
this made the guy even angrier. "I don't want a [expletive deleted] cigar," he screamed.
At which point I suddenly heard myself calling out, "Cigar but no Close!"
No one laughed. No one.
There was a short moment of silence...a very long short moment of silence, as I recall it...
Then everyone standing around outside the box office turned their anger on me.
Between 300 and 400 already-irate people glared at me with mounting fury. I turned to my companion and said, "I think I'll come
by tomorrow and exchange these tickets." And we got the hell outta there only moments, I suspect, before I would have been the first person
since the invention of the knock-knock joke to be lynched for a pun.
The next day, it turned out that there were no more seats available to see Glenn Close, so I got my money back. The lady friend
in question never spoke to me again. Sunset Boulevard went on to Broadway, where Ms. Close won her third Tony award and George Hearn won
About six months after the cigar incident, I was sitting in Barrymore's Restaurant on W. 45th Street, having lunch with George. I
started to tell him about my second visit to the show, how Glenn had been out and what had happened...
...but before I got to the alleged punch line, he interrupted and told me the story, as someone had related it to him: "...so, after
the Shubert executive hands this fellow a cigar, someone in the crowd yells out, 'Cigar but no Close!'"
"That was me," I told him.
He collapsed in laughter. "You know, when I heard that, I remembered you were coming that night and I thought it might have been
you. Well, you should have come in and seen the performance. The stand-by was very, very good."
I told him that if I hadn't seen the show before, I would have. "I'm in awe of the courage it must take to get up in front of an
audience like that, even when they paid to see you. I have nothing but respect for the understudies. I can't imagine the kind of guts it
takes to walk out in front of people who paid to see someone else."
"It's tough," George said. "I've had to do it a number of times and it does take nerves...
He continued: "...but not as many as it takes to make a rotten joke like, 'Cigar but no Close.'"